Olympic athlete and Pan-Am Games gold medalist Waneek Horn-Miller, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Quebec, has been appointed assistant Chef de Mission for the Canadian contingent competing at this year’s Pan-Am Games, running from July 10 to 26 in the Greater Toronto Area. The 2015 Pan-Am Games brings together over 6,000 athletes from 41 countries and territories to compete in 36 sports.
Recently named one of Canada’s most influential women in sport by the Canadian Association for Advancement of Women and Sport, Waneek was a member of the Canadian women’s national water polo team that won gold at the 1999 Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg. The same year, she was voted Most Valuable Player of the Canadian Senior Women’s Water Polo National Championships. In 2000, Waneek was the co-captain of the first Canadian women’s Olympic water polo team, which finished fifth at the Sydney Olympics – where Waneek famously posed nude, with a strategically placed ball and an eagle feather in her hair, for the cover of Time magazine. After winning in the Youth category at the 2000 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, Waneek went on to help Canada win a bronze medal at the 2001 FINA World Championships (FINA is the world governing body for the aquatic sports of swimming, water polo, diving, synchronized swimming, and open water). In 2006, this accomplished athlete was selected as a torchbearer for the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
The daughter of political activist and former fashion model Kahn-Tineta Horn, Waneek was raised in a household where alcohol was banned and all four children were enrolled in sports. “My mom put me and my sisters into sports where we couldn’t be judged – more race-against-time type of sports, like swimming and running,” Waneek told the Indian Country Today Media Network.
Beginning as a competitive swimmer at the age of seven, Waneek switched to water polo while attending Carleton University in Ottawa, where she studied political science. While at Carleton, she was the first woman to be named athlete of the year – an accolade she won three consecutive times, which is still a record. After helping Carleton win two Ontario university titles, Waneek went on to become the first Mohawk woman from Canada to take part in the Olympics. Inspired by fellow Mohawk Alwyn Morris, who won a gold medal for Canada in the sport of kayaking at the 1984 Olympics, Waneek remembers watching Morris on television when she was a child.
“He got on the podium, bent down, got his gold medal draped around his neck, and as he straightened back up, he pulled an eagle feather out and raised it up,” Waneek remembers. “Seeing a guy from my community doing that made me realize that I could [also] be the best in the world.” Waneek then informed her mother that she too wanted to go to the Olympics.
Waneek’s primary duty as assistant Chef de Mission at the Pan-Am Games is to act as liaison for the athletes, ensuring their needs are met so that they can deliver their best performances. For Waneek, that includes using her experience to facilitate the transformation of those around her. As she told the Toronto Star, “The Native concept of power is how much you can empower people around you. You bring them up to your level, you make them feel good, you make them feel strong, you make them feel confident.”
Sport lifted Waneek out of a difficult place. As a 14-year-old, she was involved in the 1990 Oka Crisis, when residents of the Mohawk community of Kanehsatake protested against the town of Oka’s plans to expand a golf course and build condominiums on disputed land that included a Mohawk burial ground marked with standing tombstones. After a 78-day standoff between protesters, the Quebec provincial police, the RCMP, and the Canadian Army, the mayor of Oka cancelled the expansion of the golf course, and the Mohawks agreed to retreat. During the retreat, a Canadian soldier struck Waneek in the chest with his bayonet. The injury nearly killed her, and the photo of Waneek screaming and clutching her four-year-old sister ran nationally in newspapers and magazines, becoming an iconic image of that summer’s unrest. Although the crisis at Kanehsatake marked a turning point in relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada – making more Canadians aware of Aboriginal land claims – it left young Waneek with physical and emotional scars, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today, Waneek admits that she could have retreated into anger and decided to hate the world for what had happened to her. Instead, she used the incident to inspire personal growth. “I come from people who have gone through horrific things in history – war, death, famine, genocide. How many times did my ancestors want to give up, lay down,and die? But they didn’t. They fought to continue. You have to keep going forward,” Waneek says.
After the Oka Crisis, Waneek sought healing by competing in the Indigenous Games, where she won 20 gold medals between 1990 and 1997 (including one for rifle shooting). In 1991, she participated in Sacred Run Canada, a cross-country trek that started in Victoria, B.C., and ended in Kahnawake, Quebec. The next year, she participated in Sacred Run North America, which started in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ended in Sante Fe, New Mexico. The Indigenous-led, cross-cultural runs encouraged people to believe in higher ideals – to fight racism, promote peace, and to share the rich cultural diversity of the human race. Runners were doing their share to create a better world, passing the sacred flame from one nation to another, building a sense of unity and strength. It was a message Waneek connected with on a very personal level.
After retiring from competition, Waneek began a new career as a motivational speaker. In 2014, she spoke to 18,000 youth from more than 1,000 schools across North America at WE Day in Toronto, with a message about overcoming obstacles and promoting positive social change in Indigenous communities in Canada. “We have to fix our own backyard,” she said. “I encourage all Canadian youth to look beyond colour and border to work as a team to solve issues together. You’re only as strong as every single member of your team. We have to work together.”
Waneek’s work to create stronger, healthier communities was recently recognized with the 2015 DAREarts Cultural Award, presented at a gala fundraising event in April 2015.
Although the Pan-Am job will take over Waneek’s life for several months, it is an unpaid, volunteer assignment. According to the CRRF’s Report on Canadian Values, contributing to society is a primary responsibility of good citizenship. Waneek illustrates this value, as a mentor to the next generation of athletes – and to youth across Canada.
Oka Crisis, The Canadian Encyclopedia
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, National Film Board (film by award-winning Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obamsawin)